Science - March 16, 2006

In the News / French student protests

Last Saturday French students protested en masse against the new labour policy, which would make it easier to fire young employees. The high unemployment rate is claimed to be the reason behind the new policy as well as the students’ protest. A million people out on the streets raising their voice seriously hindered public life in about 150 French towns. A level of action the Dutch student unions can only dream about, but how does someone from France regard the rallies?

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Marion Laurenceau grew up in the suburbs of Paris, travelled the world and recently finished her MSc in Environmental Policy in Wageningen. Careful not to take sides, she shares her ideas on the Dutch polder model, the global village of Wageningen and the socio-economic systems in the countries she has visited. ‘Going abroad always makes you think you are going to learn all kinds of new things about different cultures, but in the end travelling teaches you most about your own background.’

Since she finished her MSc ‘everything is open’ she smiles. After a recent trip to Africa, where she worked for an NGO on renewable energy at community level, she felt that she was not yet done with Wageningen. Now she is a part-time project coordinator at Otherwise, a small NGO linked to Wageningen UR.

Marion regards the protests last week in France as a bit of a strange development. Although she apologises for not being completely up-to-date with the events as she is not living in France, she is careful not to judge and gently explains all sides of the story. ‘It is a complex situation in which a lot of issues have come together and where a number of socio-economic and cultural aspects play a role.’

What strikes her is that most protests have had their base in the French universities, and not the engineering schools, where she herself did most of her higher education. ‘You have to realise that these are quite different forms of higher education. At the engineering schools the teaching is oriented to the employment market. We always had a lot of internship possibilities or other ways of getting experience in the job market. However, there are more students at the universities where the education often lacks this applied focus. Maybe this explains the university-student fears of unemployment.

‘The fact that the students are out on the streets protesting I see as both good and bad. It is a good thing that students are raising their voice. These days there seems to be some negativism in globalizing France but in a way that is a good way of ensuring your identity in times of rapid change. But on the other hand maybe it would have been a more effective process to spend some time sitting around the table searching for common solutions.

‘That’s what I like about the Dutch polder model, in which perhaps not every stakeholder comes away with a smile, but at least they have shared their interests and communicated about the problem. In France this is sometimes difficult because of our much more traditional paternalistic systems. For example, I don’t know if the student unions were consulted about this new policy.’

That is also why Marion thinks that above all the protests indicate that it is the French educational system that needs to be questioned. She is not optimistic about the relationship between education and the job market. ‘I have studied in the US as well, and an advantage of their system is that students are assessed more on what they do and not on where they studied or what their background is, which is how the French system works. The US offers a lot of opportunities and students seem to be aware of how get access to these opportunities. But on the other hand if you ask me what principles suit me best, I don’t know. In the US it can get way too crazy in terms of the competitive culture.’

Martijn Vink

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